light into ashes
Aug 30, 2011 4:39am
some Airplane comments
This post started out as a couple short comments and sort of grew on its own. So there's no organizing theme here, just a scattershot series of quotes from Jefferson Airplane...
Some of you may remember Garcia's comment that once in 1968, under the influence of Cream, "Me and Jack Casady and Mickey were gonna form a power trio one day." (They ended up making a tape, the 7/28/68 jam, which sounded quite mellow & laid-back even compared to the Airplane, let alone to Cream.) This little experiment, as it turned out, was the precursor to the Hartbeats that October.
I've been looking at Ralph Gleason's book The Jefferson Airplane & the San Francisco Sound, in which he interviewed the various Airplane members at some point in mid-1968, and found some Airplane comments that confirm Garcia's memory.
Jorma Kaukonen said: "We were thinking, Jack and myself and Mickey Hart of the Dead and Jerry Garcia, about when we're in town, just having a quartet, playing together, an instrumental quartet, which I think would be a lot of fun."
When Gleason interviewed Jack Casady, he said: "I'm working with Mickey right now, the new drummer with the Grateful Dead, that's where I'm going after tonight... He's had lots of jazz experience, and right now the Dead's working with a lot of times, they're working with 11/4 and 7/4 - getting into rhythmical trips, and things that jazz cats got into a long time ago...
Jorma and I play a lot together, in hotel rooms and things like that. We can get into some really interesting, really insane shit, that he can't do with the band. You can't do it with more than three pieces; sometimes two. [And] I'm working now with Phil Lesh; we're going to work on some double-bass things. Because he's got a whole different approach to it than I do, and I really dig his playing. They're working on double-drum things. We're going to work on some double-bass things with a drum. We're going to try different combinations, you know.
We're going to be in town for a while now and this is the first chance I've had to do this, and try some experimentation along these lines. Jorma and I and Mickey are going to try and get together and play some things; just maybe show up at the Matrix one night or something, nothing big. Or play in a room, that's all. We're going to try to get together if we can, if Jorma can."
I think here we can see not only the origin of the Hartbeats, but the origin of Hot Tuna. What's interesting is the path they meant to explore, but didn't - why don't we hear Jorma at any of the Hartbeats shows, for instance; what happened to the planned quartet? (We DO have one show played by that "quartet" - the 5/21/68 Carousel jam.) Lesh and Casady alternate playing bass at the Hartbeats shows, but there's never any double-bass playing on our tapes.
Spencer Dryden also made an interesting comment to Gleason:
"The Dead is about the only band that we've ever really played with a lot. We've played with them more here in San Francisco than any other band, but also on the road we've played with them in Canada. We've worked with them a lot and we talk about...putting on a show. Doing more than just music and more than just your arrangements of your tunes. We'd like to mix it up a little bit: you know, let's play some of the Dead's material; let's have the Dead play some of ours; let's have Grace sing with them; let's have Pigpen sing with us. Let's have some fun! It doesn't have to be that rigid format."
That, of course, never came to pass!
Paul Kantner had a similar plan: "We're thinking about getting with the Doors and the Grateful Dead and Big Brother, or some combination of those four...and doing a grand theatrical concert with everybody on stage at the same time... Like a three-ring circus, sort of. Where, like a group will do a song, and then maybe two people from this group come out and do something with two people in that group, while somebody else sings. There's just endless possibilities of variations you could do. Hopefully we could do it on almost any big stage. I don't know if the cost of that kind of show would be too prohibitive for most people."
Never happened, of course... Although the Airplane members had high praise for the Doors (Kantner said, "the Doors have a nice thing going now; really nice group"),
Garcia's strong dislike of them made any collaboration unlikely! As for other bands, I think the twin hurdles of rehearsals & scheduling made an "SF Supergroup Circus" a faint prospect, except for the loose club jams that happened.
On another subject - I was repeatedly struck how much in awe the Airplane members were of the Cream.
Paul Kantner: "There won't be [another] three-instrument group. Cream has that sewn up, I think. There ain't nobody going to be on top of them for a good while - til they break up."
Jack Casady: "The Cream, as far as I'm concerned, is phenomenal. The Cream sat all the rock & roll bands in San Francisco up; made 'em listen. Cause here they were getting a little too much confidence...[and] this English group came in and just blew them off the stage. There's no doubt about it, they're fantastic."
"When a band really has magic, when they're working well, their minds are all connected, it comes across to the audience... Cream did a number [and] the whole audience was swaying back and forth, in slow motion. A very long drawn-out thing; Eric Clapton's guitar like a woman's voice. I mean it felt like an acid trip. On that night, something erupted, descended over the audience, a magic. It was very mystical."
Jorma Kaukonen cites Clapton as a major influence, and seems to have made a point of seeking out all of Clapton's albums: "I've heard a lot of Clapton records that he's done with a lot of different groups, and even when he was playing with straight bands, he always did his own thing, never sounded like anybody else at all." (Marty Balin suspected that Jorma "still hates playing in the Airplane...because he envisions himself fighting Eric Clapton... He always wanted to be a blues guitar player.")
Jorma said, "Clapton is really a beautiful cat, he's very relaxed...he has a great awareness of his music, he really knows his stuff; but on top of that, what makes him so superior to guys who are technically as good as he is, is he's really free." [Gleason added: "He can sure play the guitar."]
Back when the Airplane was starting in '65/66, and Clapton was more of an English obscurity known just to blues aficionados, Michael Bloomfield made the most impact - interviewed in 1966, Marty Balin was practically ecstatic about Bloomfield and how far ahead he was of other guitar players. "To watch him play is a great experience cause he's totally committed... He sings with that guitar; it's his voice, it's part of his body... What's amazing about Bloomfield is that when he's playing, he knows exactly where those dials are and he just sets them with just one sweep of the hand. That's one thing that he really had over Jorma. Electronically, moving that guitar around, bringing it up powerful and changing its tone so you couldn't take your eyes off it." (The Dead were equally impressed.)
Jorma said in '68, "The first person that I saw really play the guitar and do the kind of things I wanted to do was Bloomfield... In the beginning, Bloomfield had a lot of influence on me... But after we started hearing the English guys like Hendrix and Clapton...musically they had more influence because to me, at least, Michael's not a very far-out musician. I mean he does his thing and he does it well. But I like music to be spacey, to flow and go different places, and he just wasn't doing that. I remember the first time I heard the Doors' guitar player, it blew my mind, because with a few notes he managed to say an awful lot..."
The Airplane also noticed a different approach between Cream and the more laid-back San Francisco bands.
Jack Casady: "One of the reasons I thought it was good that the Cream came was the fact that they still have an idea of showmanship - they know they're onstage, and they know that somebody's paying to come in and look at them... They're artists, they're as pissed off as anybody else if they do a bad job.. Part of the problem with our group, I think, is the fact that sometimes we're not aware of the audience enough."
Marty Balin: "I'm knocked out by the Cream, but...the thing about the San Francisco bands is, we're on a stage but afterward we'll be right down digging the next band with you, and I don't feel that from this band... They're great, but there's something [different] - they know they're good..."
Casady also mentioned one of the downsides of being in Cream - Ralph Gleason always made a point of asking rock musicians why they played so loud, and Casady said: "They're complaining about [the volume] too, I was talking to them. By the end of their two weeks' stay here, they ended up turning up and turning up and turning up, and by the end Clapton was telling me that he couldn't hear anymore. He couldn't hear his tones, he couldn't seem to get anything anymore."
The Airplane lamented that they were also playing too loudly... For instance, Spencer Dryden said, "I keep screaming, 'Turn down! Turn down!'... [We have] six guys striving like mad to have something come off, and just have a big roar come out. [There's] a lot of intricacy going on...I will hear things that are being played by people in the band and I know that it's never being heard out there. The people can't pick up on that cause it's covered with a sheet of sound. You do have to have some kind of separation. The big problem, of course, is that without the power or the amplification, a lot of those effects don't come off. For instance, Jorma can do some really nice things, but they will only work if he turns his guitar or his amp up; if he turns it down and tries to get the same thing, it doesn't happen."
Casady said, "We were going to go into the Matrix with a specific attempt to try to play at a lower volume...[but] certain things you can get with volume, you know; certain tones you can get... And we haven't solved that yet by any means. We still drown out the singers all the time. [Gleason: There are times when the volume [is so loud] I can't hear anything.] Right. Well, that's true, and a lot of it's due to the fact that we play too loud, and some of it's due to the fact that the sound systems aren't built to handle it. Sometimes it's just the room... The Fillmore, to me, is a horrible room to play; it's very muddy."
Disappointingly, the Airplane don't mention the Dead much in these interviews.
Marty Balin recalled that the bus ride to Toronto with the Dead was great fun ("we had a good time"), and they got a kick out of playing free afternoon outdoors shows before their concerts in Canada, much to the surprise & distress of the promoters.
"When we went to those towns, we said, 'Let's go play in the park for the people like we do at home'... We'd do that before we'd go play a concert lots of times and they'd still come to the concert. Promoters would freak out; they'd say, 'You can't play anywhere for anybody for 50 miles radius.' So we played for nothing for ourselves for free... They don't think anybody plays for no money!"
Balin said that he went to New York "during Christmas  and the Dead were playing the Village [Theater] and I walked in and they'd been playing for two days and they hadn't communicated, they said, and they couldn't. It was cold - they saw me and we started talking... [Feeling better,] they went out and I watched the next set and they brought the audience down off their seats."
Jack Casady liked Lesh's bass playing: "I think Phil is doing a lot new on the bass. His approach to the instrument is new. Most [bass players] I find to be very predictable."
Casady said, "Everybody's got their problems, everybody thinks the other band has got it all down... We used to say, 'Well, why don't we do it like the Grateful Dead, they've got it all down,' then the Grateful Dead would say, 'Why don't we do it like the Jefferson Airplane!'"
Casady and Kaukonen in particular often spoke about the musical evolution the two bands shared.
Gleason was struck by how new SF rock music was; Casady pointed out, "Most of the musicians involved in it, [like] the Grateful Dead or Quicksilver, they come out of pretty much a folk background, and right now they're all learning music... So a lot of the musicians are getting a broader outlook and drawing from all kinds of music..."
Marty Balin said in '66, "We listen to everything; we're very open... We really believe that electronics are going to start playing a very big part...[rock musicians] have never really used the potential of electronics. Take the Yardbirds: they've done some fantastic things with feedback. The Who from England - they're taking the guitar and they're smashing it into the amplifier...creating different sounds. Jack has started playing with some electronic sounds. We're listening to Varese and people like that, and we're getting a lot of interesting ideas. There's so much that can be done with electronics."
Jorma said, "I really had to learn to play guitar all over again. Playing an electric is so much different from playing an acoustic... I even remember the first time [I played loud]: we were rehearsing...and I'd just gotten this great Gibson and I was just sitting there with my amplifier - and I took my hands off the strings, it started to make noises, and I found that by wiggling the thing, it started to make funnier noises, and just one thing led to another. It's sort of an unavoidable thing, I think, for electric guitar players... When Jack and I were in our band in high school, guitar players used to go to all ends to avoid that, because it was the crisp, clean country sound that everybody was looking for then."
Casady observed: "We, the Airplane, are a conglomeration of really radically different backgrounds; and sometimes that's hampering, but also it's what has created whatever we are too, and we wonder about that ourselves. No group functions really smoothly, at least ours doesn't, particularly when everybody's equal. There's no leader; there's nobody to hire and fire. So it takes us a lot longer to get things done, and there's a lot more battling. And everybody's on different levels musically."
The Dead, of course, would have described themselves the same way. They came to electric instruments at about the same time - Casady said that "Jorma did not start playing electric guitar til he got in this band; and he didn't start using a pick til about six months later. So he's come along fantastic. But that's one of the reasons, to my mind, he's one of the most original guitar players. Very little of it has been put on record because it just hasn't happened yet; but I play with him a lot and I hear him do incredible shit, and his approach is completely self-taught. Doing things his own way...maybe it takes longer, maybe it seems more difficult at the time, but the end result is freshness. And the same with me: I don't have anybody to run to, I don't have anybody to copy...I have to work it out."
Jorma was also impressed with Casady's playing: "[When] I called him up and dragged him in [the band], he hadn't played bass in about six months...but he worked out pretty well, I'd say! He's really amazing, Jack is, cause musically he listens to everything. He's really an omnivorous musical listener; he'll listen to everything, his record collection is mind-staggering. He used to be a guitar player...and the kinds of things he does are not the kind of things that a bass player does. Like he embellishes rhythm and does all the things you're supposed to do, but he really plays like a guitar player in a lot of ways...and I think that's the way it should be, because an electric bass can do so many things, there's no reason why it should just be playing along with the bass drum."
Casady said, "When I arrived, I hadn't played bass for a long, long time. I found out I was still better than most bass players, cause most of them were folk-oriented, and I had a little more musical knowledge behind me... In the beginning my idols were acoustic bass players...[but] right now I'm getting into lots of harmonics and feedback and lots of chords and things like that, that bass players aren't supposed to do."
Jack and Jorma had a musical partnership within the Airplane, sort of parallel to Jerry and Phil's, that carried over into Hot Tuna. Jorma said, "It's almost a classical approach...when we start to get into something where you can play like counterpoint, lines and things... [Also] it's really a lot of fun for me to make lots of noise and thrash around...and if you can combine the two and get them both happening together, which Jack and I can do lots of times, that's groovy too. But he and I usually have our most fun when we're just sitting around somewhere and build intricate structures."
Gleason said, "One of the things that struck me about the Airplane is that you get off and away from that straitjacket of the rhythm section that hangs up a lot of bands."
Jorma replied, "That's been a necessity, really... Rock rhythm sections are usually so sloppy in terms of laying down a solid foundation for a soloist to solo on... The thing is with our band, because of the way the people are, there isn't anybody in it that can really lay down that kind of solid thing...so it just had to be different... A lot of times I've thought & Jack's thought it was terrible that we can't play like that, but I don't think anybody really thinks that, because I've played with a lot of other musicians. Like we were jamming with Elvin Bishop the other night, who's a great musician, a great guitar player, but I really got bored after a while doing that, because you start to get into the same changes and the same kind of rhythm configuration - you're backing up or you're taking the lead, and that bores me."
[This reminded me of the contrast between the Dead's music and Elvin's music at the Hartbeats shows.]
Casady mentioned one experience the Dead frequently went through: "A lot of times [after a show] we'll be bum-tripped maybe more than actually we should be, because we're aware of all the little inter things going on, all the little things that don't particularly get out. A lot of times we think it's a horrible set and maybe it wasn't that bad, you know. We hear it back on tape - and it doesn't sound half as bad as it seemed onstage. Sometimes we've blown our minds but it hasn't sounded too together."
More than the Dead, the Airplane tried to play their songs differently from night to night. As Spencer Dryden said, "Whatever we do, we're going to do it different. So we just start with a different beat or start with a different bass line, and see if we can take the same tune and relate it some other way... You're trying to play something new, trying...to take their heads somewhere else. Like, don't signal everything you do - keep them on their toes - see if you can switch their heads around...[and] take them on that really beautiful trip that is possible to have happen when you're onstage and the audience is out there and you feel that thing going back and forth and you know you're together, and you try and get that with people that have never seen you. And they've been programmed to hear White Rabbit, so they scream for White Rabbit... [We say] 'Play it different...play the same changes, but play something different.'"
Marty Balin also said, "We'd walk onstage, nobody knew how a number was going to come off or anything; nobody knew where it was gonna start, what time, what key even; it was just sink or swim. Some nights it was just insane... We'd come offstage, people would come up and say, 'That's not rock & roll.'"
Unlike the Dead, the Airplane were a national hit very quickly, and soon found themselves facing large audiences resistant to strange new music. Balin felt they were often losing the audience: "So we had a nationwide hit, we went out and we found that everybody just wanted to hear that one hit! That's all they asked for! We'd blow their minds, but we had to force them to listen to anything else."
Casady also noted that when the music is "fresh, it's new, it's different, it won't go over as well. It's weird...that's a problem."
Dryden remembered, "We played a very good tune for the first time, we opened a set with it in concert at Winterland. Never been played in public before... The band roared, man, we just played the shit out of the tune - just tight! Driving! It was right there, balanced. Nobody was too loud...and the people just looked, and man, that feeling that every musician knows, when he just opened himself and they just look at you like you're insane. And what do they want?... Somebody to Love.... And so you play for the 38,000th time, Somebody to Love. Good tune as it is, man, you can only do so much... You're going out of your gourd trying to figure out what will please the people that won't bore you to death and make you come off giving a bad or just a mediocre performance. And it's a weird trip."
A couple times Gleason mentioned the night he "got" the Airplane: "I'll never forget that night at the Fillmore when it just turned me inside out...I suddenly realized, my god, that's what they're playing... That thing about turning the songs around and doing new things knocked me right smack out of my mind... I couldn't believe it."
He praised the band's untitled jams. Casady said, "There's lots of improvising going on. Sometimes it's off a framework; sometimes it's total improvisation. We don't know what to expect next. It's fine, it's exciting, sometimes it works...I dig it when it works, and when it doesn't work I'm pissed... If I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't want to be in the group."
Jorma said, "Some of them really work out well. They're harder to do, cause when we get three or four people going, it's harder. When everybody's head is together, they really come out well... One night when we were playing at the Fillmore, we were playing a jam...organized around a repetitive rhythm pattern, and Jack and I were building all these lines on top of that, and Spence was embellishing the rhythm pattern and Paul was playing very slow, quarter-note lines, very pretty and it just all coalesced together. But when things like that happen, it's really incredible. Everything just happened together, and for some reason the piece began and it sustained and it built and it ended and that was it."
A couple times the "X factor" came up in interviews, though of course not called by that name.
Dryden: "I could tell from the first two bars that Jack played... I can't explain it, it's just that feeling that you get when you're all together and things are working. You don't have to worry about what your hands are doing, they're doing it - you can watch your hands play. [Gleason: You can't make mistakes.] No, you don't. It just all happens...and you get that good feeling. And those are the nights you look for. And the thing is...I always want it to be one of those nights. I know it always can't be, but I'd rather have a majority or at least a 50/50 thing of those nights. Instead of like one out of 100 or one out of 50, whatever it happens to be. I really want that thing to happen all the time; and I guess we all do."
Balin: "On the last two tours, there were about half of those nights we were pretty good. Maybe three or four of them were pretty bad, just not worth anything. But...we walk on the stage and nobody knows what anybody's gonna do. We know this song, but every time it comes out, it comes out different. And we can't do anything about that... Sometimes you don't know who you are. You're standing up there...and it's just working like that, and it's nothing we know, we don't even know how it's happening, and it just comes out. [Gleason: Can't do it wrong.] Couldn't do it again! It comes out differently."
In a couple interviews, Gleason particularly praised the Dead and Quicksilver's first show at the Carousel, a "beautiful experience" (1/17/68): "I was exhausted physically, just beat... I went cause I thought, well, I got to go; I'm so tired I want to go to bed, but I really ought to go by for a few minutes and just see... And those bands played so groovy that I stayed there until two in the morning. I felt good...it was like, good medicine. It felt groovy. That's what I look for... I don't know what the hell they did."
Balin agreed, "Quicksilver had always been a pretty good band - they wiped everybody out. I've seen them since then and god, I can't wait for their album. I really like those guys."
There was also a light show by Jerry Abrams' Head Lights. Gleason noted that during "the Dead's set, Jerry Abrams ran a whole series of filmstrips that I had never seen before, which involved a lot of closeups of one eye in color... It was one of those things that just synchronized perfectly with what the band was doing, and it freaked me out. Just as though they'd rehearsed a couple of weeks to do it."
Balin: "When that happens, that's far out. We don't know how that works. Sometimes the light show is just mind-staggering. They top the guitars, the guitars go off, and that light show just ties it up - [it's] all the things together, not just music."
Casady went dancing at that show: "That was the first night that I felt good about dancing. I even danced under the strobe light, you know. We danced for hours and hours and it was a really good feeling. I really got a whole other idea of what goes on in the audience. I've always approached it from walking on the stage as a musician, and now I was out there dancing... I wasn't listening musically - just feeling what the band was doing..."
Gleason: "I stayed all night."
Casady: "Oh, so did everybody, man, nobody wanted to leave!"
Gleason: "And I left feeling groovy."
Casady: "Right, so did we. We skipped out of the place - it was really nice."
Gleason: "Just washed everything out of my head. Which is worth millions. There ain't no price on that!"
This post was modified by light into ashes on 2011-08-30 11:39:54